Today, let's focus on a preservationist's fantasy come true-Bleecker Street!
Last evening I had the pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace of Dave and Regina Bonacci's chic new loft dwelling downtown.
The building that they brought back to life was, many moons ago, Gerald's Mens Shop (for those of you old enough to remember!) More recently it was TR's After Hours, a breakfast place for the early morning bar crowd.
That's the location I remember. As a bartender next door at Yesterday's, Louie DeGeronimo's celebrated 80's dance club, I fondly remember the "Hi Honey" greeting given to all the inebriated patrons by Thelma Roy, the hostess/owner. TR was a no-nonsense gal, who served up witty reparte with her coffee and eggs. Her chef, Congetta, was a large, matronly woman with a beautiful Italian accent and a grandmotherly countenance. Together they made quite a team. And, there was never any trouble with drunks, because these two were as tough as they were friendly!
In any event, after TR retired (she has since passed away) the Food Bank took over the building. Around the same time, the bar next door was having trouble of its own. A succession of owners after Louie D. sold the place had reduced the once hip and beautiful nightspot to a run-down drinking hole with nightly fights and trouble a plenty.
That's when City Hall stepped in. Tim Julian, Mayor at the time and Tim Doyle, Urban Renewal Director, hatched a plot to rid downtown of these "eyesores." Never mind they were early 19th century mercantile structures, built the same time the Erie Canal flowed through Downtown bringing commerce and wealth to Utica.
They must be demolished decreed the pair, and they set out to accomplish that deed. And, what was set to take their place? Why, parking of course. Surface parking, the holy grail of development. Build more parking and the people will flock to the city!
At the same time City Hall was getting the 'dozers ready, a team of preservationists set out to thwart the plan. Lead by Landmark's member Pam Jardieu, we met to try to figure a way to stop this crazy plan. You see, it was late 2007, and Julian was up for re-election. We figured if he won, we would have to fight the traditional way, perhaps getting a court order or injunction. But if he lost...
Aided by several City Hall "insiders" we managed to delay the asbestos abatement long enough to see the results of the election. If the abatement had gone ahead as planned, the roofs would be stripped from the buildings and that would truly signal their demise. The city had already allowed the former owners to totally strip the interiors of any thing of value and had cut the utilities in the street.
Well, election day came and Julian lost. The block was saved.
Working in City Hall in early 2008, Pam and I devised a plan to save the block for good by matching new owners with the buildings. Not just any owners but stewards, people who appreciated historical structures. More importantly, we also wanted to bring new life downtown.
Enter Dave and Regina. A local architect with incredible talent and sensitivity toward old buildings and their reuse, this was the kind of project he had been looking for. Having left the DuRoss Building in the Utica Business Park after it's sale, Dave wanted a new home for his office and an upstairs loft apartment for him amd his wife.
Pam and I got to work. We wrote a Main Street grant for 500,000 and submitted it to the Common Council for approval. Unfortunately the Councilman who represented the district, Frank Vescera, was not comfortable with giving money to potential developers and the permission to apply for the grant was not given.
We were stunned. How could the Common Council not grab this opportunity and run with it?
Not to be stopped, we continued our search. Dave and Regina were in no matter what.
We then found George Heath and Wade McCrite, two South Florida transplants that had recently completed a stunning restoration of their big brick Italianate mansion on the corner of South Street and Park Avenue. These men were as dedicated to saving old buildings as any one on Landmarks, and they purchased the Yesterday's building and the corner building as well, the former home of Meyda Tiffany.
The middle building, formerly Meelan Floors, was the last one sold. A Bosnian Family, pursuing their American dream, purchased it and in short order had it completed and opened as a coffee shop and martial arts studio.
The block began to see new life and activity. Aided by CDBG dollars that I allocated from our budget, the buildings came back. Life came back.
And, Dave and Regina moved in! Stunning beyond belief, you have to see the building and Dave's innovative design to appreciate what is possible-even in Utica!
Strut, the chic night spot designed and created by George and Wade, is also a testament to what can be done with vision, sweat equity, and a little help from government. An industrial yet elegant feel to the place gives you the "I must be in Manhattan feel"-yet no, you are in Utica.
And to think, at one time not too long ago, the best use that almost happened on the block was surface parking!
In the end, Pam and I applied for a second round of Main St, grants and we got one. An additional 500,000 is now in the works for Bleecker St.
Stories like these will bring our city back. And I am glad that, in a small way, I was able to help make it happen.